I headed out to Chinatown for a little reconnaissance work yesterday afternoon, but not before stopping for lunch at the newish Japanese restaurant on the "quiet" end of the neighborhood, closer to Sharpstown than the Beltway. Umai sits quietly and neatly in an almost deserted strip center, the first of many parallels I noticed between it and my other favorite Japanese restaurant: Kata Robata.
Like Kata, Umai is extremely reasonably priced given the quality and authenticity of the food you're eating. And like Kata, Umai serves a mean bowl of ramen and some wickedly good agedashi tofu. Unlike Kata, Umai isn't anchored by a "celebrity" chef, but that doesn't stop the kitchen from turning out some unusual and playful dishes, such as the edamame gyōza I fell in love with over lunch.
Gyōza are the Japanese version of one of my favorite foods: food in a pocket. Whether they be pierógi, empanadas, manti, pasties, kreplach or baozi, I love dumplings. (Okay, perhaps empanadas and pasties aren't quite dumplings, but they're delicious food enclosed in a delicious wrapper, so I'm rolling with this.) Gyōza, however, are typically filled with garlic and soy-laced pork, and therefore aren't vegetarian, kosher or halal-friendly.
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The green-tinted gyōza at Umai are made with edamame (hence the green wrapper) and filled with vegetables and rice, steamed and then pan-seared on the bottom for that slightly crunchy texture I so love about Japanese dumplings. They, of course, don't taste anything like regular pork gyōza, but that's part of what makes them so good. The sweet, earthy vegetables inside don't weigh you down before your meal and would even be a great way to get a picky child to eat her veggies. It's an inspired creation and a lovely twist on an old standard.
Likewise, the fragrant miso ramen at Umai is sweet and earthy owing to the corn, bean sprouts and greens thickly filling the bowl. The hearty, fatty, nutty broth is good enough to slurp down on its own, although you'd miss the best part: the tangles of curly, al dente ramen noodles. The restaurant also offers shio ramen for the more health-conscious. The pork ramen was $9.50 for a bowl, which would easily feed two people. It's simply one of the best bowls of ramen you can get in Houston.
After the meal, the very sweet waitress brought over two items of lagniappe, much like Osaka on Lower Westheimer is known to do: an artfully arranged slice of fresh cantaloupe and a bowl filled with ice, gelatin and a liquid that tasted like lychee fruit. "I don't know what it's called in English," she laughed shyly when I asked her about it. Whatever it was, it was wonderfully refreshing and the perfect end to an equally wonderful meal.
Unlike Kata Robata, Umai only offers sushi as an afterthought. But it's a gratifying sight at a Japanese restaurant: the focus here is on creating excellent, authentic dishes -- and occasionally modern twists on those dishes -- in a cozy, welcoming atmosphere. Houstonians who think that Japanese food is only about sushi or sashimi should visit Umai to see what bounty the rest of the country has to offer.